On Friday we announced that Mainak Dhar’s Alice in Deadland: The Complete Trilogy is our Thriller of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the thriller, mystery, and suspense categories: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
by Mainak Dhar
Alice in Deadland was released in November 2011 and quickly became an Amazon.com bestseller, selling more than 50,000 copies in its first three months. It was followed by its sequel, ‘Through The Looking Glass’ and ‘Off With Their Heads’, the prequel to Alice in Deadland. Now, get all three novels in the Alice in Deadland Trilogy in one single omnibus edition and immerse yourself in this bestselling adventure.
Alice in Deadland
Civilization as we know it ended more than fifteen years ago, leaving as it’s legacy barren wastelands called the Deadland and a new terror for the humans who survived- hordes of undead Biters.
Fifteen year-old Alice has spent her entire life in the Deadland, her education consisting of how best to use guns and knives in the ongoing war for survival against the Biters. One day, Alice spots a Biter disappearing into a hole in the ground and follows it, in search of fabled underground Biter bases.
What Alice discovers there propels her into an action-packed adventure that changes her life and that of all humans in the Deadland forever. An adventure where she learns the terrible conspiracy behind the ruin of humanity, the truth behind the origin of the Biters, and the prophecy the mysterious Biter Queen believes Alice is destined to fulfill.
A prophecy based on the charred remains of the last book in the Deadland- a book called Alice in Wonderland.
Through The Looking Glass: Alice in Deadland Book II
More than two years have passed since Alice followed a Biter with bunny ears down a hole, triggering events that forever changed her life and that of everyone in the Deadland. The Red Guards have been fought to a standstill; Alice has restored some measure of peace between humans and Biters; and under Alice, humans have laid the foundations of the first large, organized community since The Rising- a city called Wonderland.
That peace is shattered in a series of vicious Biter attacks and Alice finds herself shunned by the very people she helped liberate. Now she must re-enter the Deadland to unravel this new conspiracy that threatens Wonderland. Doing so will mean coming face to face with her most deadly adversary ever- the Red Queen.
Off With Their Heads: The Prequel to Alice in Deadland
A few months before Alice was born and fifteen years before the dramatic events depicted in Alice in Deadland, there was The Rising. A few days that destroyed human civilization as we know it, reducing much of the world to a radioactive wasteland teeming with hordes of undead Biters and controlled by a shadowy Central Committee.
Off With Their Heads brings to life the final harrowing days of The Rising through four shorts, each depicting events through the eyes of one pivotal character in the Alice in Deadland series. See how Dr. Protima became the Queen of the Biters; feel the pain of a young man’s sacrifice as he becomes the bunny-eared Biter whom Alice later follows down a hole; follow the rise of Chen from a conflicted young Chinese Army officer to a General in the Red Guards; and finally share in the dramatic escape of Alice’s parents from a city overrun by Biters.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the hill, and of having no Biters to shoot. Once or twice she peeped through her sniper rifle’s scope, but could see no targets. ‘What is the use of an ambush,’ thought Alice, ‘without any Biters to shoot in the head?’
Alice was fifteen, and had been born just three months after The Rising. Her older sister and parents sometimes talked of how the world had been before. They talked of going to the movies, of watching TV, of taking long drives in the countryside, of school. Alice could relate to none of that. The only life she had known was one of hiding from the Biters. The only education that she knew to be useful consisted of three simple lessons: if a Biter bites you, you will become one of them; if a Biter bites someone you know, it doesn’t matter whether that person was your best friend; they were now a Biter and would rip your throat out in a heartbeat; and if you could take only one shot, aim for the head. Only the head. Nothing else would put a Biter down for good.
So here she was, lying on a small hillock, her rifle at her shoulder, waiting to pick off any stragglers who escaped the main force. The first few years of her life had been one of hiding, and of surviving from one day to another. But then the humans had begun to regroup and fight back, and the world had been engulfed in a never-ending war between the living and the undead. Alice’s parents were part of the main assault force that was now sweeping through a group of Biters that had been spotted near their settlement. She could hear the occasional pop of guns firing, but so far no Biters had come their way. Her sister was lying quietly, as always obedient and somber. Alice could not imagine just lying here, getting bored when the action was elsewhere, so she crawled away to the edge of the small hill they were on and peered through her scope, trying to get a glimpse of the action.
That’s when she saw him. The Biter was wearing pink bunny ears of all things. That in itself did not strike Alice as strange. When someone was bitten and joined the undead, they just continued to wear what they had been wearing when they were turned. Perhaps this one had been at a party when he had been bitten. The first Biter she had shot had been wearing a tattered Santa Claus suit. Unlike kids before The Rising, she had not needed her parents to gently break the news that Santa Claus was not real. What was truly peculiar about this Biter was that he was not meandering about mindlessly but seemed to be looking for something. The Biters were supposed to be mindless creatures, possessed of no intelligence other than an overpowering hunger to bite the living. She braced herself, centering the crosshairs of her scope on the Biter’s head. He was a good two hundred meters away and moving fast, so it was hardly going to be an easy shot.
That’s when the Biter with the bunny ears dropped straight into the ground.
Alice looked on, transfixed, and then without thinking of what she was getting into, ran towards the point where the Biter had seemingly been swallowed up by the ground. Her heart was pounding as she came closer. For months there had been rumors that the Biters had created huge underground bases where they hid and from which they emerged to wreak havoc. There were stories of entire human armies being destroyed by Biters who suddenly materialized out from the ground and then disappeared. However, nobody had yet found such a base and these stories were largely dismissed as being little more than fanciful fairy tales. Had Alice managed to find such a base?
Her excitement got the better of her caution, and she ran on alone. She should have alerted her sister, she should have called for reinforcements, she should have done a lot of things. But at that moment, all she remembered was where the Biter had dropped into the ground and of what would happen if she had truly found an underground Biter base. She was an excellent shot, far better than most of the adults in the settlement, and she was fast. If there was one thing she had been told by all her teachers since she started training, it was that she was a born fighter. She could put a man twice her size on the mat in the wink of an eye, and she had shown her mettle in numerous skirmishes against the Biters. Yet, she was not allowed to lead raids far from the settlement. That had always grated, but with her father being one of the leaders of the settlement, she was unable to do anything to change that. He claimed that her excellent shooting and scouting skills were better used in defensive roles close to their settlement, and had promised her that when she was older he would reconsider, but she knew that was a nervous father speaking, not the leader of their settlement.
This could change all that.
Suddenly she felt the ground give way under her and she felt herself falling. She managed to hold onto her rifle, but found herself sliding down a smooth, steep and curving slope. There seemed to be no handholds or footholds for her to slow her descent or to try and climb back up. She looked up to see the hole through which light was streaming in disappear as the tunnel she was falling down curved and twisted.
Alice screamed as she continued falling in utter darkness.
It took Alice a few minutes to get her bearings, as she was totally disoriented in the dark and also winded by her fall. She saw that her fall had been broken by a thick cushioning of branches and leaves. She had heard whispers that the Biters were not the mindless drones that many adults dismissed them to be, but those accounts had been dismissed by most people as fanciful tales. She wondered if there was some truth to those rumors after all. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw a sliver of light to her right and crawled towards it. As she went deeper into the tunnel, while she still could not see much, the smell was unmistakable. The rotten stench that she knew came from only one possible source: the decayed bodies of the undead. Even though she had seen the aftermath of many a skirmish with the Biters and was no stranger to the stench, she found herself gagging. As she came closer to the light, she saw that the tunnel opened into a small room that was lit by crudely fashioned torches hung on the walls.
She could hear some voices and as she peeped around the corner, she saw that the rabbit-eared Biter she had followed down was in animated conversation with two others. One of them was, or rather had been in life, perhaps a striking young woman. Now her skin was yellowing and decayed and hung in loose patches on her face. Her clothes were tattered and bloodied. The other Biter with her was a plump, short man who seemed to have the better part of his left side torn off, perhaps by a mine or a grenade. Alice had been around weapons for as long as she could remember, and while all humans now needed to be able to defend themselves, Alice had shown a special talent for fighting, perhaps one her mother did not always approve of. Her mother had wanted Alice to do as the other young people did and stand on guard duty close to the settlements, but Alice had always wanted to be in the forefront, to feel the thrill that came with it.
Now, Alice thought, she had perhaps got more thrills than she had ever bargained for. She was trapped in an underground Biter base, with no apparent way out.
The Biters were talking in a mixture of growls and moans, but they seemed to be communicating with each other. Now that she got a closer look at the rabbit-eared Biter she had followed in, she realized that he had been in life not much older than her. Perhaps he had been on his way to a costume party when he had been bitten. As he turned his head, Alice saw what may have once been a smile now replaced by a feral grin that revealed bloodied teeth.
Alice’s heart stopped as Bunny Ears looked straight at her. For a second she hoped that he had not seen her, but he bared his teeth and emitted a screeching howl that sent a shiver up her spine. As all three Biters turned to look at her, she exploded into action.
Alice’s grasp of the alphabet may have been tenuous despite her mother’s many failed attempts to teach her the languages of yore. But after The Rising, Alice saw no use for them; there were no books to read, and no time to read them even if they had remained. But what Alice excelled in school at, and could do almost without conscious thought, was how to thumb the safety off her handgun and bring it up to a two handed hold within three seconds. The first shot took the fat Biter squarely in the forehead and he went down with an unceremonious flop. As the two others bore down on her in the slight loping, lumbering gait the Biters were known for, she fired again and again, the shots from her gun echoing in the underground cavern. She hit the female Biter at least twice in the chest and then knocked her flat with a head shot. Bunny Ears was now barely a few feet away when Alice’s handgun clicked empty. She cursed under her breath at her horrible aim, realizing just how much easier it was to shoot at targets in practice or snipe from hundreds of meters away compared to being so close to Biters out for her blood, and with her heart hammering so fast she could barely keep her hands straight, let alone aim.
Alice heard footsteps and howls behind her, and realized with a stab of panic that she was now well and truly trapped between Bunny Ears and others who may have come behind her down the hole.
She looked around frantically and saw a small opening in the wall to her right. She ran towards Bunny Ears, diving down at the last minute beneath his outstretched fingers, which were crusted over with dried blood. Alice stood only about five feet tall, and was lean, but she had been top of her class in unarmed combat. She swept her legs under the Biter, coming up in one seamless motion as Bunny Ears fell down in a heap. She ran towards the hole in the wall and turned around to see at least four more Biters coming behind her.
Alice fumbled at her belt and took the lone flash bang grenade she had slung there. As she ran into the hole she pulled the pin and rolled it on the ground behind her, and then continued to run at full speed into the darkness of the hole. She heard the thump of the grenade a few seconds later, hoping that the intense flash of light it emitted would slow down her pursuers for a few seconds and buy her some time.
With that hope came a sobering thought. Time to do what? She was stuck deep inside what seemed to be a Biter base, and was running ever deeper into its recesses. She was well and truly trapped.
AN EXTRACT FROM
THROUGH THE KILLING GLASS:
ALICE IN DEADLAND BOOK II
What Alice regretted the most about not being fully human was the fact that she could no longer cry.
More than a year had passed since Alice set in motion events that had changed her life and that of everyone in the Deadland by following a Biter with bunny ears down a hole in the ground. Events that had led to the creation of a new settlement, a settlement unlike any the world had seen since The Rising. What had followed had been the re-settlement of the city of Delhi by thousands of humans who had streamed in from the Deadland to live together in a community. A community that had laws, security and houses for people to live in. A community where every night was not spent in dread of marauding Biters or raids by the Red Guards. A community that was now known simply as Wonderland.
The cost of this victory had been high. Thousands had perished in the Deadland during the struggle against the Red Guards, and hundreds more in the air raids that had been unleashed when Alice had been captured. Alice’s personal costs had been high, too. She had lost her entire family, and her identity. No longer was she the mercurial fifteen year-old girl her father had doted upon. She was now the Queen of Wonderland, whom people looked at with awe and fear. But being part-Biter, she could never taste food again; she now simply had no need for it. She could never dream of her family again, for Biters could not dream, and while she often thought back to all she had lost, she could not cry to lessen that pain, for Biters shed no tears.
To her enemies, Alice was a formidable adversary, with the training and battle-tested instincts of the most elite human soldier, but also with the inexhaustible stamina and immunity to all forms of damage short of a direct head shot that her Biter half gave her. To her human followers, she was a messiah who had rescued them from the Deadland to give them hope that they could live again like civilized people. To the Biters who followed her, she was the leader of the pack, to be followed with animal instinct and devotion.
But to herself, she was still Alice Gladwell, daughter and sister to her murdered family. . She had taken her vengeance against the Red Guards, and what had begun as a mission of personal vendetta had led to something much bigger. Alice had never fashioned herself as a leader, but now she knew more than ten thousand humans in Wonderland depended on her. Whether or not she wanted this burden of leadership, it was now hers, and she was determined not to let down those who counted on her.
Much of her own young life had been spent forged in battle, and her education had consisted of little more than learning to fight and to survive in the Deadland, but today Alice was going to do something she had never done before. She was going to inaugurate the first school in Wonderland.
There was a hush among the gathered thousands as she stepped onto the makeshift podium. Arjun, her confidante and trusted advisor, had chosen the location with his usual sense of humor. The school was to be located in what had once been the Delhi Zoo.
‘People of Wonderland, thank you for coming. I myself had little education beyond learning to survive in the Deadland, but now our children will learn what people did before The Rising, and one day they will revive our world the way it was.’
There was thunderous applause, but when Alice stepped off the podium, she felt a bit hollow inside. She knew nothing of what life had been like before The Rising, and while she was proud of what they had achieved together, she wondered if she was really needed in Wonderland anymore. She knew nothing of managing a city, with its squabbles over water and romantic affairs. She itched for the camaraderie she had known in the settlement where everyone knew each other, not the anonymity of urban life, where people huddled in their apartments in the center of what had once been posh government colonies in Delhi.
She saw a young couple holding hands, and she looked away. That was another experience she was never to have. She was young enough and human enough to regret never being able to be loved, but she was Biter enough to never feel such emotions. Besides, her appearance did enough to seal that deal.
As she walked back to her room in what had once been the Red Fort in the heart of Delhi, Arjun caught up with her.
‘Alice, we’ve sent out patrols north of Wonderland again this week, but people are beginning to complain about the patrols. They say that we haven’t seen Red Guards for months.’
Alice turned towards Arjun and she noted with dismay how even he flinched at her sight. Her impish smile and twinkling eyes were long gone, replaced by a vacant, yellowed gaze and skin that seemed to be rotting, giving off a foul stench. She turned away, trying not to see the expression on his face.
‘Arjun, people grow fat and happy. They forget that this safety was won with blood, and that the war still rages outside of their apartments, and any day it may visit us again.’
Arjun was with Alice – she knew that – but she also knew the pressure he faced. It was no longer popular to talk about the war. After their crippling losses in battle, the Red Guards had effectively ceded control of what had been the Deadland in North India. Occasionally a jet would be spotted high in the skies, but even they did not come lower, knowing that Wonderland’s defenses bristled with hand held Surface to Air missiles wielded by experienced troopers who had once served Zeus, the mercenary arm that had done the Central Committee’s bidding before they had mutinied and the Red Guards had been called in from the mainland in China.
At times like this, Alice got on her bicycle and rode alone, crossing the dried up Yamuna river to the forested area that had now been reserved for Biters. Someone had said it was like an animal reserve from before The Rising, and strangely Alice had felt herself bristle at that comment. The Biters were kept confined in a wooded area ringed by electrified fences with tunnels that allowed them to go out to the Deadland. Was the Biter part of her so strong now that she identified herself more with them than with humans? She drove with the wind blowing her flowing blond hair behind her. That was the one part of her body that had not changed when she had been transformed into the hybrid she had become.
By now, the sun was setting and darkness settling over the forests, and she saw a couple of familiar shapes. Closest to her was a Biter wearing bunny ears, with a shuffling gait and a left hand that been taken off below the elbow by a Red Guard grenade. The second was a hulking Biter wearing a hat. If Alice was the leader of the pack, then Bunny Ears and Hatter were her enforcers. After being transformed, she realized that while the Biters could not really communicate in any human language, they did communicate like animals, and had a strong pack mentality. Bringing an end to the war in the Deadland meant not just fighting the Red Guards to a bloody standstill but also ensuring that Biters and humans could at least co-exist, if not actively work together. Doing that had meant establishing herself as the leader of the pack. Now she commanded an army of thousands of Biters who emerged from the dark forest, kneeling before her.
Alice held an old, charred book in her left hand. It was the last book left in the Deadland and she had first encountered it in the underground base of the Biters in the possession of the Biter Queen. Its title was Alice in Wonderland. The Queen had believed that the book held a prophecy for healing the world, and that Alice was destined to carry out the prophecy it contained. Now that Alice had brushed up on her reading skills, she understood the coincidences leading to the Queen’s belief in the ‘prophecy’ and Alice’s part in it. Alice did not know if there was any truth to the supposed prophecy, but she did know two things. One, until someone actually sat down and wrote another book, this was indeed perhaps the last book in the Deadland, and that in itself made it a precious thing to protect, and second, that the Biters held it in an almost religious awe. That was the reason why she carried it with her every time she came to them.
Alice had come to realize that loyalty from Biters was never a given, since they were as impulsive and as aggressive as rabid animals, and when one or two of the newcomers shuffled towards her, Hatter stepped in front of them and swatted them away. Before, Alice had been disgusted by their fetid smell of rot. Now it barely bothered her.
She sat down by a tree, looking at the night sky. But now more than stars illuminated what had once been the Deadland: lights from several apartments flickered in the dark.
‘They grow complacent. They light up the settlement to be the easiest target for miles.’
She had just whispered to herself but Bunny Ears came and sat down next to her, awaiting her orders. While the Biters communicated in grunts and screeches, they seemed to understand human language to some extent. Perhaps some part of their brains still functioned despite the virus that had reduced them to this condition.
‘Don’t worry, Bunny Ears. Nothing I can’t handle.’
She waved him away when the tactical radio strapped to her side came to life.
‘White Queen, this is White Rook. Please come to the Looking Glass immediately.’
Alice got up and sped away towards the nearby temple that served as their communication center, their only real window to what was happening in the outside world. Satish – or White Rook – had named this place Looking Glass. Before he defected, Satish had been a Zeus warrior, and over time he had effectively become the head of the armed forces of Wonderland.
For months they had tried to get in touch with the ongoing resistance in what had been the United States, but without much success. Other than that, they used captured computers and handheld tablets to monitor what the Central Committee and its minions were up to. There was no news other than what the Central Committee allowed to be transmitted, but at least it gave them some idea of what was happening outside their settlement. Looking Glass had been initially located in the heart of the city, but then people had asked for it to be moved to the outskirts, since they did not really want to hear the bad news from the outside world. That was another sign that people had grown complacent, and forgotten the struggle that had won them this peace.
Alice wondered what Satish had learnt that required her to be in the Looking Glass at this time of night.
‘The fools want to create political parties and have an election.’
Alice could sense the disdain in Satish’s voice. She knew that with relative peace, people in Wonderland had been quick to lapse into the jockeying for power that was perhaps inherent to man. It was a shame that it required something like The Rising and being hunted by Biters for men to realize that petty tokens of power and prestige were not what really mattered.
‘That bastard Arun is riling everyone up, telling them we need true democracy and that they no longer need you.’
Alice tried not to get involved in the politics of men like Arun, who had been a politician before The Rising. She had continued to run Wonderland the way it had been, by a small committee of elders, and with every big decision being put to a vote.
‘Satish, they will talk because they have nothing better to do. I don’t think it means anything.’
Satish turned towards Alice. With all they had been through together, he saw beyond the decayed skin and yellow eyes. He still saw the incredibly brave yet naïve young girl who had done so much for everyone in the Deadland.
‘Alice, you don’t know how men like them work. They are no better than the leeches in the Central Committee in Shanghai. Give them half a chance and they will become tyrants in their own right.’
It was an old argument. Both Arjun and Satish hated how all they had fought for was being lost, and people were lapsing into petty politicking. A few months of security, one which they and their friends had shed blood to win, had led men like Arun to proclaim that they no longer had a war to fight, and they needed to create a more peaceful, democratic society. One where people like Alice and Satish did not need to have such a prominent role, and of course one where, conveniently enough, politicians occupied the highest rungs of the ladder.
‘Satish, I’m sure you didn’t call me here at this time to bitch about Arun.’
Satish slapped himself on the forehead in exaggerated apology.
‘No, no, of course not. Come on, we have some exciting news. For the first time, we actually may see something of value though our Looking Glass.’
Alice followed him to a console in front of which an elderly man was sitting, hunched over a computer terminal and with headphones around his ears.
‘Danish, have you got anything yet?’
Danish raised one hand as he focused on tuning the radio in front of him. Danish had been a Communications Officer in the Indian Army before The Rising, and now he was in charge of running the Looking Glass in their continuing endeavor to learn about what was happening outside Wonderland, and also to try and make contact with others like themselves.
‘We’ve finally made contact! Check this.’
Alice peered over his shoulder to see a single message displayed on the computer screen.
‘We are your brothers in arms, fighting for the independence of the United States of America. We have heard much of you and your Queen. Listen for us in a day’s time.’
Danish was visibly excited, his old, wrinkled eyes twinkling as he spoke.
‘They managed to get an old server up and put up this page. This is the first Internet posting in sixteen years, and looks like the Central Committee hasn’t seen it yet.’
Alice had been born after The Rising, when people were more bothered about escaping from hordes of Biters than surfing the Internet, but she had seen how powerful information could be in their own struggle against the Central Committee. With tablets brought over by defecting Zeus officers, they had managed to hack into the Central Committee’s Intranet. Since then they had been posting messages that led to further defections among Zeus and also started creating discontent among the masses in mainland China, who had begun to question the true nature of the war they had been sold.
Before Alice could say anything, Danish hushed her, putting on his headphones, and then passed them on to her.
‘Alice, they want to talk to you.’
Alice put on the headphones and heard the crackle of static. Then there was the deep voice of a man.
‘Alice, this is General Konrath of the Free American Army based out of Forth Worth, Texas. We have been fighting our own war against the same enemy you face, and we are all proud to call you a fellow American.’
Alice’s father had been with the American Embassy in New Delhi before The Rising, but she had been born in a world where the countries of the old world were little more than memories. Still, it was good to make contact with people from outside the Deadland where she had been born. It made their struggle feel less lonely.
‘General, we have had a few months of relative quiet in Wonderland, and the Red Guards don’t really come here anymore. How are things in the United States?’
There came a pause before the general’s reply.
‘Alice, we are facing brutal house to house fighting against the Red Guards and the still loyal Zeus mercenaries. Our bigger problem is that we’re fighting them and also fighting against the damned Biters.’
Another pause, before he added, ‘You know what I mean, Alice.’
‘General, there’s no need to apologize. I lived in fear of Biters for the first fifteen years of my life as well.’
‘Alice, I wish we had someone like you to bring peace with the Biters. But for now, we need your help. Two of our people have escaped from a labor camp of the Reds and are making their way to the plains. They have nowhere else to go, so they are trying to escape to your city. Help them if you can.’
Static muffled the connection, and then the line was terminated. Alice felt Satish exhale loudly beside her. She knew that they were being asked to re-enter a fight that many in Wonderland believed was over.
‘Alice, what do you plan to do?’
Alice answered without a pause. ‘Satish, I lost my entire family so we could live free. I will not allow others seeking their freedom to be hunted down when I can help them.’
Satish just sniggered.
‘Satish, what are you thinking?’
Satish grinned. ‘I’m thinking that fat old Arun will have a heart attack if he knows about this.’
‘He doesn’t have to know, does he? Well, we don’t even know that they’ll make it anywhere close to Wonderland.’
Danish coughed to get their attention. He had one of his tactical radios held to his ear.
‘Folks, something’s up. One of the advance recon parties saw a convoy of Red Guards a hundred kilometers to the north east, on the old National Highway 8. They report two trucks and some jeeps.’
‘Satish, I’m getting my kit. You get some men ready and join me.’
Five minutes later, Alice was outside near her bike. Her kit consisted of a handgun in a holster strapped to her left thigh, a serrated combat knife on her right thigh, an extra handgun on an ankle holster, and an assault rifle across her back. Satish was there with three of his men, getting into their jeep.
‘Alice, are you sure you want to go along? This could be a trap for all we know.’
‘I’m all dressed up for the party. I cannot back out now, can I?’
As she started off on her bicycle, Satish felt a lump in his throat. The thin girl he had first met in the Deadland had become a true warrior queen, and while she looked fearsome, he still remembered the crying girl he had met in the forests of the Deadland. A girl who had just lost her family to the Red Guards. He had nearly lost her once before, to a Red Guard trap. There was no way he was going to let her down again. He checked his own assault rifle and shouted to the driver.
‘What are you waiting for? Let’s go!’
By the time they started, Alice was well on her way, blond hair billowing behind her. Just a couple of years ago she would have felt fear at the prospect of such imminent danger. Now she welcomed it like an old friend. Far from the petty politicking of Wonderland, now it would be the way it had been, the way she had always liked it.
AN EXTRACT FROM
OFF WITH THEIR HEADS
THE PREQUEL TO ALICE IN DEADLAND
THE ACCIDENTAL QUEEN
‘Stan, what have we done?’
Dr. Protima Dasgupta was struggling to choke back her tears as she spoke to her colleague many thousands of miles away in the United States.
‘Protima, I’m a bit busy. I’ll talk to you later.’
Protima slammed her phone down. Even Stan, one of the most outspoken critics of the decision to use Sample Z in what the spooks had euphemistically called ‘accelerated field tests’, was no longer talking to her. She had spent more than twenty years of her life serving the United States Government, but it was as if her decision to leave the project and come back to India had burnt all bridges with friends and colleagues.
She walked unsteadily to the dining table and poured herself another glass of wine. She had been stupid to call Stan. It was likely his phone was tapped, but she was beyond caring now. She had argued that even if one disregarded the morality of using Sample Z on foreign populations, it was just too unstable to use yet. But of course, she had been overridden, and a week later, Global Hawk stealth drones had dropped canisters of the biological agent onto a Red Army garrison in Inner Mongolia.
Dr. Protima was not senior enough to be privy to the decision-making process, but she was senior enough to access some of the documents passed between her bosses and the men who had ordered the mission.
A shot across the bow to show them we still have an edge.
A reminder of who the superpower really is.
Those were two lines she remembered. Tensions between the US and China had reached a boiling point over the last year, with the US economy tottering and China reeling under increasing protests demanding democracy and human rights. The US had slammed the second Tiananmen Square massacre, only to be blamed by China for supporting what it called ‘terrorist activity’ in China to distract the US population from its economic woes. A humiliating bloody nose given to the US Navy off Taiwan had added injury to the considerable insult of the US economy having now been reduced to surviving on Chinese holding of its debt.
The fact that the garrison in Mongolia housed research facilities engaged in China’s own biological warfare program was of scant consolation as Protima saw the chaos unfold on TV. When reports had come in of a strange virus spreading throughout Mongolia that turned people hyper-aggressive, attacking anyone in sight, she knew her worst fears had come true.
Sample Z had begun as a potential miracle cure for troops whose nervous systems had been badly damaged by battlefield injuries. Initial trials had been exciting, with troops doctors had given up on making recoveries to lead near-normal lives, and Protima had been exhilarated at being part of something that would help save thousands of lives. Then came the fateful meetings three years ago, when Protima and her team were asked to work on modifying Sample Z to incapacitate enemy troops, destroying their nervous systems and rendering them incapable of rational thought. A separate team had been working on another strain to dramatically enhance the strength and endurance of troops, turning them into berserkers immune to pain. Protima had warned that the differences between them were still not fully understood and the virus was very unstable. Ultimately, her objections had counted for little, and she had quit the program.
The scrolling news bar on the TV announced that there were at least ten thousand confirmed fatalities in China in the last week from the mysterious virus.
Protima turned off the TV and slept fitfully, dreaming of men with their faces peeling off, running towards her to attack her.
The next morning, she woke up to a beautiful summer morning, with the sun streaming through the windows of her hotel room. She pulled aside the curtains and saw the road already rapidly filling with the chaotic traffic that was the norm for New Delhi. She had a job interview at eleven o’clock, so she dressed quickly. She looked at herself in the mirror and for a moment she was looking at a stranger. Her grey hair was the same as usual, as were her lean, gaunt features. But her eyes, which normally sparkled with laughter, were now ringed with dark circles, and try as she might, she could not bring back the smile that had been a permanent feature on her face. After losing her husband in an accident several years ago, Protima had worked hard to recreate herself from the nervous wreck she had become, and she had almost succeeded, till the past few days.
But now she had another chance to start over. While some of her work, like Sample Z, would never be known outside a small group with the highest security clearances, she had been published widely in fields related to genetic engineering and had been given glowing references by her former bosses on the condition that she sign a very strict non-disclosure agreement. So she had no doubt she would get the job with a leading research institute using genetic engineering to improve crop yields to feed India’s rural poor. Finally her experience and knowledge would be put to some good use.
She was in a taxi on her way to the interview when her phone rang. It was Stan.
‘I should have left when you did. They’re all dead. They’re all dead.’
Protima sat up with a jolt. Stan was slurring, as if he had been drinking. ‘Stan, calm down. What happened? Have you been drinking?’
‘Lab 12 burned down a few hours ago. Most of the people there are dead, and the few that made it…’
Protima felt a chill going down her spine. Close friends of hers had worked at Lab 12, located just outside Washington, where Sample Z had finally been weaponized for use in China.
‘I don’t know if it was the Chinese retaliating for what we did or if our own government is covering its tracks…’
‘Stan, stop! Please stop! We’re on an open phone line.’
What Stan said next scared Protima more than she had ever been in her life. ‘It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters any more. What the news is saying about the outbreak in China is not even close to how bad it is. I’ve seen what happened to the survivors of Lab 12. Protima, it’s like nothing we imagined. The media is trying to keep it quiet under government orders, but when the news breaks, it’ll be too late. You need to save yourself and get the truth out. I’ve sent a package for you with files from our project and the orders to use it in weaponized form. There are also papers about experiments on prisoners in Afghanistan. Go and meet Gladwell at the Embassy there in New Delhi. He’s an old friend and a good man.’
‘You’re in Washington. Why don’t you get it to someone there?’
‘It’s too late for me now. They caught me printing out the files and I just managed to get away. They’re here now. Goodbye, Protima.’
With that, the phone went silent. Protima tried calling him back, but there was no answer.
While she was waiting to be called in for the interview, Protima wondered if she would be able to go through with it. After what she had heard from Stan, she found it hard to concentrate. Her hands seemed to be shaking uncontrollably, and her heart was pounding. However, once she sat before the interview panel, she managed to control her nerves and her interview went very smoothly, but all the while she thought of Stan’s call. When she got back to her hotel room, she checked the TV and the Internet, but there was no mention of the fire Stan had talked about. He seemed like he had been drinking, and he would have been hit hard by the use of their research in the Mongolia operation. Finally, she decided to get some fresh air and walked outside, sitting at a coffee shop overlooking the busy street.
It was now six in the evening, and the Delhi summer heat had begun to dissipate. Protima sipped on her coffee, contemplating her future. At the age of forty-seven, it seemed too late to make a fresh beginning, but she was going to try. She had left India more than twenty-five years ago, on a scholarship to the US for her Masters, and her work there had earned her an internship in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working on studying viral strains. She had excelled there, and one day had been approached for a full-time position in the government, working on classified biological programs. Now, she would try and put that behind her. She would get an apartment, buy a car, and start afresh with her new job.
Protima was jolted out of her thoughts by the man at the next table exclaiming to a girl, ‘Oh my God! Have you seen this video? They’re saying the dead are coming back to life!’
Some wiseass at another table mumbled something about how he always felt like a zombie on Monday mornings, but nobody laughed.
Within minutes, dozens gathered around the young man who had the YouTube video playing on his phone. Several others were now checking the video on their own phones, and Protima saw from their horrified faces that something was very wrong. She was about to ask one of them what the matter was when the owner of the cafe shouted above the din.
‘Folks, it’s on CNN now. Just quiet down and let’s see what they’re saying.’
Protima edged towards the TV set up above the bar, and saw the familiar shape of the US Capitol Building in the background as the young news anchor adjusted her mike and looked at the camera. Protima had been in New York when 9-11 had happened, and she had seen how shaken the news anchors had been. This anchor had the same expression. Protima hushed two young girls next to her so she could hear what was being said.
‘The Department of Homeland Security has said that it is premature to say whether the outbreak is a possible act of terror and has dismissed any link to the fire last night at a government lab featured in Wikileaks documents as a possible biological weapons research lab.’
The news cut to blurry mobile phone footage. The moment Protima saw the group of men, she knew something was wrong. They seemed to be shuffling more than walking, with their heads and hands bent at strange angles, and occasionally one would violently jerk his head. Protima had seen those symptoms before, as side effects of Sample Z.
Two police officers walked into the path of the men and fired. Protima heard gasps around her as two of the men fell to the ground, their bodies jerking as bullet after bullet tore into them.
‘Why are they shooting? What the hell is happening?’
Protima ignored the cries from those around her as she tried to think what might have happened. Clearly Stan had been right and there had been a fire at the lab. It was possible the vials of Sample Z might have been compromised and some people might have been infected. But why on Earth were the cops shooting at them?
That was when something even stranger happened.
The two men who had been hit by dozens of bullets got up and the group rushed towards the policemen, who ran in panic. Then the footage stopped. The anchor was back and was reading from a sheet of paper in her hands.
‘The Department of Homeland Security has decided to place some affected neighborhoods of Washington under immediate curfew. Anyone seen outside without prior authorization after noon tomorrow will be presumed to be infected. They are requesting all citizens to cooperate while the authorities contain this outbreak.’
The anchor put the sheet down, and looked at the camera. Protima could tell this part was not scripted. The young woman crossed herself and said, ‘God help us all.’
Protima spent a tortured night, trying to come to grips with the role she and her colleagues had played in unleashing the outbreak now devastating Washington. She tried to tell herself she had just been doing her job, but how would that make her any different from an accessory to murder? She tried calling Stan again, but his phone was switched off.
That night, as she watched events unfold on TV and the Internet, she realized there was no containing the outbreak. Cases began to be reported across the United States, and the symptoms were terrifyingly the same. Reports had been leaked of how the first infected had seemed to be dead, and then got up and attacked anyone in sight, biting and clawing them to infect them as well. Police were still maintaining their position that rumors of the infected being impervious to gunshots were unfounded, but more videos had been posted online.
When Protima went down to the lobby of the hotel, it was crammed with tourists and visiting businessmen. With the outbreak now reported in Canada and the United Kingdom, people were beginning to panic and trying to catch the first flights home so they could be with their families.
The Concierge greeted her as she passed. ‘Dr. Dasgupta, a courier landed for you yesterday.’
The package was marked as diplomatic mail. She smiled, remembering Stan joking that he could never get into too much trouble no matter how insubordinate he was because he had a brother in-law in the Foreign Service. Clearly, Stan had been able to call in one last favor before… Protima stopped herself. Despite all that had happened, there was no proof anything bad had happened to Stan.
She opened the package and found a simple note addressed to her. It was in Stan’s handwriting.
Dear Protima, if you’re reading this letter then it’s already too late for me. Just pray they have beer in heaven, or hell, or wherever people like me go.
When the pressure to weaponize Sample Z began, I got curious about what was going on. The upside is that I got my hands on these files, but the downside is that it’s a matter of time before they get me. I don’t know who to trust anymore. That’s the reason I’m sending these to you instead of trying to get them to anyone in the government. I don’t know if we can stop what is happening – it may be too late for that. But at least people will one day know the truth behind how we ruined our world.
Do as you see fit. You could try sharing it with the press, but I don’t know how free our free press is any more. The people I reached out to didn’t want to have anything to do with this. But do get it to Gladwell at the American Embassy. He’s a good man, and he is very well-connected. He could at least help us get this to someone in the government who is not in on the conspiracy. This is all part of a plan, but I fear the men behind this don’t fully understand what they are unleashing.
Take care, my friend.
Protima put the note aside and took a look at the documents, wondering how much of what Stan had written was true. As she read the first page, she grabbed the sofa behind her for support and sat down. She read non-stop for over an hour, reading each document more than once to make sure she was not mistaken about their contents.
As much as she would have liked to not believe them, the documents were devastatingly clear. There were transcripts of conversations, emails, and minutes of meetings.
What Protima, Stan and their colleagues had been working on had been a very small part of a grand plan that was both awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. Vials of Sample Z had been taken to remote bases in Afghanistan for human testing. The men who had ordered the use of Sample Z in China had known its likely effects much better than Protima had realized. But in keeping the scientists out of the loop, it seemed they had totally underestimated how the virus would behave once it was transmitted from one person to another.
Protima closed her eyes, her head throbbing. Could men really condemn millions to death for a plan that called for gradual repopulation to deal with the issue of scarce oil and other resources? Could the same men seek to quell rising discontent about the ruin the financial elite had brought to the West by creating such an environment of fear that people would gladly accept any form of tyranny? Was it possible that they had managed to forge some sort of partnership with sections of the Chinese government who were struggling to contain their own people’s calls for democracy? The documents in front of Protima made it amply clear that was exactly what had happened.
The final contents of the package were two small vials containing a red liquid. Protima knew what they were. The vaccines they had been working on to protect against Sample Z. They were untested, but in sending them, Stan had at least given her a shot at life.
A commotion started around her. Several men and women were standing, pointing at a TV in the corner of the lobby. The first case of the outbreak had been reported in India. With millions of people traveling by air every day, and many in the neighborhoods surrounding Lab 12 not even aware of the risks, there was no telling how far and how fast the outbreak would spread.
Now that the outbreak had begun to spread globally, Protima knew she had very little time. She dialed the American Embassy to get an appointment with Gladwell.
‘They say the disease makes people into demons who cannot be killed. My cousin saw a man at the airport who bit a dozen others and the police kept shooting him but couldn’t put him down. You’re lucky that your destination is on the way to my home. You are my last passenger for now. After I drop you, I’m going straight there and staying put with my family till they figure this out.’
The last thing Protima needed was a talkative taxi driver. Protima just nodded, but that seemed to encourage the man.
‘I gave a lift to two Army officers, and they told me they were being called up for duty. But they also said they were getting contradictory orders. Nobody in the government has any idea what to do.’
Protima didn’t envy anyone who was trying to deal with the unfolding situation. Any outbreak of a highly contagious disease, let alone one with such unpredictable and terrifying effects, was best nipped in the bud. Identify the core outbreak, quarantine those infected and contain the spread till the strain was better understood. In this case, it was way too late for that. The infection had spread globally, and after what Protima had just read, it was a fair bet some elements in the government had actively aided in its spread.
As she looked out the windows, the streets of Delhi were packed with policemen. But she shook her head as she saw that they had come prepared for riot control, with batons and shields. If the outbreak spread here, they would be of little use.
As the taxi turned towards the American Embassy, the taxi driver shouted, ‘There’s no way they will let me get any closer. You’ll have to walk from here.’
Roadblocks manned by Indian policemen barred their entry to the approach road. Protima saw that the Marines who guarded the Embassy were now gathered at the gate, all armed with automatic rifles, and she saw movement on the roof, which could have been snipers. Clearly they were not taking any chances. As she tried to go towards the Embassy building, one of the policemen stopped her.
‘This area is now closed to the public.’
Protima pleaded that she had an appointment at the Embassy but that did not seem to have any impact. Finally, she took out her American passport. ‘Look at this, please. I am of Indian origin but hold an American passport. You cannot stop me from going to the US Embassy.’
The policeman looked like he was in doubt, but he was saved from having to make a decision by one of the Marines jogging over from the Embassy gates. ‘Ma’am, please come with me.’
He jogged back without waiting for Protima and she walked as fast as she could. Closer to the Embassy, she saw the same emotion she had seen in the policeman’s eyes. Fear.
The Marines might have looked intimidating from afar, with their weapons and body armor, but up close, most of them were very young, and they looked terrified. She was ushered into the main building, where she walked up to the receptionist.
‘Excuse me, I have an appointment with the Chief of Mission, Robert Gladwell.’
The receptionist asked Protima to wait while she called Gladwell’s office. Protima sat down in the lobby, which was packed with US citizens who had come to the Embassy to seek refuge and try and get home. A woman was sobbing, her head buried in her husband’s chest as he tried to comfort her. Protima caught only a few snatches of their conversation before they passed her. ‘Martha, all flights are cancelled. We can’t get out for now. The kids will be okay…’
The TV was playing CNN. The footage showed burning buildings somewhere and Protima walked closer to hear what was being said.
‘Chinese and US naval forces have skirmished off the coast of Taiwan on the same day Israel claimed to have shot down two Iranian missiles. The President has ordered all US forces to be ready to deal with the unfolding crisis, and the Department of Homeland Security has reinstated the color-coding for the threat level to the US Mainland, declaring it to be red. In a separate announcement, the Department of Homeland Security has declared that many internal security duties are to be handed to the private military contractor firm Zeus, as US military forces were needed to deal with the multiple international crises that threaten to escalate to all-out war in Asia and the Middle East. One of the first actions of Zeus has been to forcibly disband all Occupy protests, saying that they suck up precious resources needed to control the outbreak and also that crowds spread the outbreak. Many civil rights activists protested, saying private armies cannot be used to silence US citizens’ fundamental rights to free speech and assembly. The spread of the outbreak continues unabated, and the Center for Disease Control has said it will stop issuing casualty figures as they are growing at such an exponential rate.’
Protima sat down, her hands shaking as they gripped the package. The plans outlined in the documents Stan had sent her were unfolding right before her eyes.
Someone coughed to get her attention and she looked up to see the receptionist. She was an aging Indian woman who had dark circles under her eyes and looked dog-tired.
‘Dr. Dasgupta, I’m afraid Mr. Gladwell is unable to meet you now. As you know, things are busy here and he has some urgent matters to attend to.’
Protima felt her heart sink. ‘I had an appointment with him. I just need to meet him for a couple of minutes.’
The receptionist was polite but Protima sensed she was being evasive. ‘I’m sorry, but he himself has asked me to cancel this meeting. I can’t help you.’
There was no way she was going away without giving the documents to Gladwell. Protima tried again, pleading with the receptionist. ‘Please, please give me just two minutes with him. I don’t even need to talk to him. I just need to give him some very important documents.’
‘Dr. Dasgupta, I presume. Chief Gladwell asked me to apologize for not being able to meet you, but if I can help you in any way, please let me know.’
Protima turned towards the deep, gravely voice to find herself looking up at a tall, bald man built like a tank who completely dwarfed her. He was wearing a military uniform and even indoors his eyes were covered by wraparound sunglasses.
‘Ma’am, my name is Major John Appleseed, and I can pass on whatever you wanted to give to Bob.’
With the unthinking trust most people had for men in uniform, Protima held out the parcel, but as he grabbed it, she paused. Stan had told her to give the package only to Gladwell. She started to retract her hand, but Appleseed held on. There was still a smile on his lips, but his voice had a hard edge to it now.
‘I said I will take it from here.’
Their impasse was broken when somebody shouted and Protima turned to look at the TV. A news channel was broadcasting live from the gardens surrounding India Gate, in the very heart of Delhi. There was the sound of gunfire and of people screaming and as the cameraman zoomed in, Protima saw a group of men walking in a shuffling gait, many of them covered in blood. The camera zoomed in again and she saw that one of them had half his face torn off. More people in the reception screamed, and someone bumped into Appleseed, throwing him off balance for a second. Before he could recover, Protima was running out the door, heading into a city that, like many others around the world, was now faced with its worst nightmare – a highly contagious, deadly virus that turned people into raging monsters.
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